Joe Santoro: Expectations for Pack ‘reaching absurdity’
Special to the Appeal
The Nevada Wolf Pack is no longer the biggest little secret in all of college basketball.
“We have a target on our back,” senior point guard Cody Martin said.
That target is now also plastered on the Pack’s chest, ankles, feet, legs, arms and head. And bullets are flying at anything silver and blue that moves from all possible angles.
“We know how hard this season is going to be,” Martin said.
It is getting ridiculously difficult. Winning an Olympic gold medal, an Academy Award and the lottery is hard. Executing a 69-yard hook and lateral play for a touchdown against the New England Patriots with no time left on the clock is hard. The expectations heaped upon the Wolf Pack right now are, well, reaching absurdity levels. The Pack, which just three years ago was hoping to reach double figures in victories for new coach Eric Musselman, has now been tossed into the conversation with some of the greatest teams in college basketball history.
“We know we have pressure,” Musselman said earlier this season. “We understand the stakes.”
Not even Musselman, who convinced everyone in Northern Nevada from the very first day he stepped on campus that anything and everything was possible, could have dreamed up these lofty stakes. His biggest little team from the biggest little city in the world now has the biggest, most inflated and unreasonable expectations on its back.
The national media, in its never-ending desire for internet clicks and Sports Center graphics, is now wondering whether the Wolf Pack will even lose a game before the NCAA tournament.
Imagine that? A perfect Pack season. The Wolf Pack is just 10-0, it’s not even Christmas and the Mountain West season hasn’t even started and already the national media is wondering if the Pack will even lose a game before March. The last time a Pack team won its first 10 games was 1951-52 when it won its first 14. Lucky for that team coached by Jake Lawlor, ESPN and even Sports Illustrated weren’t even invented yet.
But that is the silly media world that college sports has to deal with these days. Three years ago the national media thought the Wolf Pack was one word and was based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Now they are putting the pressure of perfection on Musselman and his team.
“All of those expectations are also our expectations,” Martin said earlier this year.
Not even Martin, who arrived in Reno two years ago with his brother Caleb from that other Wolfpack from North Carolina State, could envision these types of expectations. The Pack, now 10-0 and ranked No. 7 in the nation, is not only expected to win, it is expected to keep winning for another two-plus months.
ESPN posed the question of whether anyone could beat the Pack in the regular season late Sunday night after the Pack’s 74-66 victory over Grand Canyon earlier in the day.
ESPN’s conclusion? Well, if the Pack does indeed lose a game in the regular season it will likely involve the Martin twins being kidnapped and Musselman becoming the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers sometime in early February.
ESPN’s “matchup predictor” has determined that the Wolf Pack is a clear favorite to win each one of its remaining 21 regular season games. In nearly half (10) of those 21 games the Pack, according to ESPN’s matchup predictor, has a 90 percent or greater chance of victory. In fact, there are just two games in which the Pack’s potential success rate is under 70 percent. Those two are at San Diego State on Feb. 20 (69.8 percent) and at Utah State on March 2 (61.8 percent). In other words, the Wolf Pack should be 31-0 heading into the Mountain West tournament.
Sports Illustrated conducted a roundtable discussion on whether the Pack will also win the Mountain West tournament and be 34-0 entering the NCAA tournament.
Keep in mind that just 19 teams in college basketball history have ever entered the NCAA tournament undefeated and just seven of those teams (1956 San Francisco, 1957 North Carolina, 1964-1967-1972-1973 UCLA and 1976 Indiana) finished the job and won a national title.
Just two teams since UNLV in 1991 — Kentucky in 2015 and Wichita State in 2014 — entered the NCAA tournament unbeaten. And now SI.com is wondering whether the Wolf Pack can be the third? The Wolf Pack not only isn’t a secret anymore, it’s something ESPN and Sports Illustrated fills its valuable time talking about.
“Although Nevada should be firmly favored every time it takes the floor before the NCAAs, the cumulative improbability and the sheer difficulty of taking everyone’s best shot every night, plus the attendant pressures of perfection and the variables of being 18-23-year-olds juggling 18-23-year-old lives, take their toll on even the most talented teams eventually,” wrote SI.com’s Dan Greene.
That’s what this Wolf Pack season has become, a discussion of cumulative improbability, attendant pressures, the pressures of perfection and 18-23-year-old lives.
“They should do it but reality bites,” SI.com’s Jeremy Woo wrote.
A few of the SI.com writers actually appear to have seen a Pack game or two this year.
“The Wolf Pack’s propensity to start slow could easily burn them,” wrote Molly Geary.
“The Martin twins are literally grown men playing against teenagers on a lot of nights,” Woo wrote.
“There’s no one in the Mountain West who looks even remotely comparable to the Wolf Pack,” wrote Emily Caron. “Arizona State was their last big test of the season.”
“The Wolf Pack has a small rotation so just one injury or foul trouble could potentially cause them big-time problems,” wrote Max Meyer.
Will the Wolf Pack lose a game before the NCAA tournament? The Mountain West is an awful basketball conference this season. The Wolf Pack just might be the only Mountain West team to play in the NCAA tournament this season. But college sports, especially Wolf Pack sports, rarely if ever falls in line with ESPN matchup predictors. What do you think the percentage of probable victory was for the Wolf Pack football team at UNLV on Nov. 24 after it took a 23-0 lead?
Odds are this Pack team will lose a game or two before the NCAA tournament. A 34-game winning streak, after all, is not so easy. UCLA won 88 in a row in the 1970s and 47 in a row in the 1960s, San Francisco won 60 in a row in the 1950s and UNLV won 45 in a row in the early 1990s. The Wolf Pack has never even won as many as 20 in a row.
Logic and history tells us that a loss or two will come for this Pack team. So, where are some potential losses for the Pack over the next 21 games? Musselman will tell you that all 21 pose a severe threat. But that’s Musselman being Musselman.
“Every game is hard,” he said after a double-digit victory this year.
Some are more difficult than others. Musselman’s Wolf Pack has lost just two of its last 38 games at Lawlor Events Center. So you can feel relatively sure that the Wolf Pack won’t lose one of its remaining 11 home games this year, starting with Saturday night against South Dakota State.
That leaves 10 road games, at Utah, Utah State, San Diego State, New Mexico, Boise State, UNLV, Colorado State, Wyoming, Fresno State and Air Force. All 10 are potential Wolf Pack landmines. The Pack lost at San Diego State and Wyoming just last year. The Pack lost at Utah State and Fresno State two years ago and lost at Boise State, New Mexico and UNLV three years ago.
Stuff happens on the road. We’ve already seen it this year. The Pack trailed USC by seven, Arizona State by 15 and Grand Canyon by 11 this year, all away from Lawlor Events Center.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Musselman said the 74-66 win over Grand Canyon. “From our standpoint it was the worst game of the year. We had a lot of guys who had sub-par performances.”
College basketball teams lose a game now and then. No team since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers has gone unbeaten. But that team never lost because it was afraid of its coach.
“Our goal this year is to play this season completely undefeated from the opening tip through the championship of the NCAA tournament,” Knight told his Hoosiers in the fall of 1975. “That’s what this team is capable of doing and I expect it to do that.”
Musselman, though he has been accused of being a pint-sized Bobby Knight at times throughout his career, hasn’t likely told his Wolf Pack the same thing. But you just know that is his goal. And this Pack team knows it.
“One loss changes things,” Musselman said earlier this year. “And then we have to figure out a way to regroup and get better.”
Musselman coming off a less-than-perfect win over Grand Canyon is bad enough. Musselman coming off a loss is, well, not the type of pressure this team needs this year.
“I have to keep my composure,” said Musselman, talking about how he deals with even first-half deficits. “We have all this hype and stuff (and I have to remind myself) we’re not going to just walk out there (and win easily).”
Losing a game or two might be the best thing for this Pack team. Musselman, of course, will never admit it to himself or anyone else, but he might think the same thing. Don’t forget that the Pack got a huge wakeup call last month after a 91-73 loss to Washington in an exhibition game in front of the home crowd back in the middle of November.
“That Washington game I feel we just felt like we were going to win because we were at home and we won a lot of games last year,” Musselman said. “It brought our attention back to how hard every game is.”
Musselman let Washington teach his team a lesson that night. That lesson has paid off in 10 consecutive victories to start the year to go along with a No. 7 ranking and some goofy undefeated talk by the national media.
“It was a good slap in our face and it was good for us,” Caleb Martin said two weeks into the regular season. “We (now) know we’re not just going to win games by just walking in the building.”
That’s a message Musselman will repeat when the Pack walks into San Diego State’s building, Utah State’s building and all the rest of the potential booby traps this team walks into this year.
The last 21 games, especially the 10 road games, are NCAA practice tests for this Pack team. And we all know how Musselman loves to test his team. The Pack just completed a grueling test of six road games in four states over 18 days, beating Tulsa, Massachusetts, Loyola-Chicago, USC, Arizona State and Grand Canyon along the way.
“We’re extremely excited to go 6-0,” Musselman said. “We got six wins.”
He then told the media what those six wins meant to him.
“Whatever word you want to use,” he said. “Validate who we are.”
Six games, four states, 18 days. That sounds an awful lot like what this team will be up against in the NCAA tournament. That likely is not a coincidence. To win the NCAA tournament, the Pack will have to win six games in three cities away from home in a span of 18 or 19 days.
And that is the only form of perfection this team is after this year.